Airport commission lowers wastewater rates

Commissioners match competitive wastewater service rates in Massachusetts.


Updated July 26, 4 pm

Wastewater rates at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which were raised for the first time in 14 years in January of 2017 to 8 cents per gallon, will be lowered to 3 cents per gallon retroactive to January of 2017.

Commissioners began by looking at competitive rates throughout Massachusetts and found that the average cost per gallon of wastewater, including on the Island, was around 3 cents per gallon. After a motion to accept the rate change was made by commission chair Bob Rosenbaum, 5 of the commissioners voted to approve, with commissioners Trip Barnes and Don Ogilvie recusing due to conflicts of interest. The commission agreed to review the 3 cent rate annually, to see how it impacts the community, and whether it is financially realistic going forward.

Rosenbaum asked commissioner Peter Wharton, the majority opinion writer for the airport finance committee, to express the general feeling of the committee regarding wastewater fees.

“We have an expense for operating the wastewater plant at 8 cents a gallon,” Wharton said. He said the total cost of operating the plant divided by the number of gallons that go through it equals 8 cents per gallon. “That’s obviously where we are, and how we got to that number,” Wharton said. “While 3 cents a gallon may be the statewide average, they are spreading that across a much larger user base.”

Commissioner Kristin Zern asked if all towns and municipalities use the same formula to determine that average.

“I can’t tell you how everybody else determines their rates,” Rosenbaum said.

Commissioner Richard Knabel asked about personnel costs, and noted that wastewater plant personnel have been given additional duties. “Those additional duties have nothing to do with the wastewater treatment plant, so are all the personnel costs associated with those individuals being attributed to the wastewater treatment plant?” Knabel asked.

Rosenbaum explained that only a fraction of wastewater personnel costs were attributed to the overall $370,000 maintenance cost of the plant. “Their full salaries are not included in that number,” Rosenbaum said.

Mike Eldridge, airport wastewater and facilities department manager, said one variable that is difficult to determine is the amount of time being allocated to different elements of the airport facilities. “Unless you are punching a clock for every different thing you are doing, you might bounce from one thing to another,” Eldridge said, “so you spend an hour here, two hours here, three hours there.”

Knabel suggested an ascending rate for wastewater usage that would charge more to customers using the most water.

Barnes disagreed with the idea. “People would run away screaming,” Barnes said.

According to Eldridge, this would be the wrong approach because the amount of water being used does not always match up with the amount of wastewater.

He cited the airport laundromat, which has its own well, as an example.

“So they don’t use any water, but they use the wastewater,” Eldridge said. “We have a meter that is installed, but we don’t use it for water use, we use it to calculate their wastewater use.”

Commissioner Rich Michelson said he never realized what a huge impact the high wastewater rates would have on customers.

Wharton chimed in, suggesting there is no reason they cannot look retrospectively at what the impact would have been if a graduated cost was implemented.

“How do we manage a difficult impact in the rearview mirror?” Wharton asked.

Rosenbaum said that moving forward, the commission hopes to establish a closer, more communicative relationship with customers.

The commission is in the process of trying to expand the business park, according to Rosenbaum. “We are hoping to open up new lots and bring on new tenants, and that is good news, bad news as far as the wastewater facility goes,” Rosenbaum said. “We are already almost at capacity.”

He admitted that sometimes the commission makes mistakes, and that an open dialogue is important when looking to solve any issues.

All customers who have already paid the 8 cents for this fiscal year will be given a credit toward future wastewater charges.

In other business, the commission discussed the amended budget for fiscal year 2019. Rosenbaum noted a net remaining revenue of $391,606. Airport manager Ann Richart explained that the $64,537 allocated to debt services in the FY19 budget will go largely to paying back debts relating to the expansion of the airport business park and airport facilities. The vote to approve the amended FY19 budget passed with 5 votes to approve and 2 abstentions from Barnes and Michelson.

“Debt is not a bad thing,” Rosenbaum said. “Debt is what any business uses when they are expanding and they are doing projects.”

He said that accruing and repaying debt is a normal business process, and the commission would be fiscally irresponsible if it did not borrow that money to help the airport.

“We are now in the process of catching up,” Rosenbaum said. “By going and borrowing for the capital cost of improving the airport, that is how we are getting the cash for our operating-related expenses.”

Updated to clarify the last time rates were increased. -Ed.

Updated to clarify commissioner Michelson vote and FY19 budget vote.